Why do we suffer?
This is a question that I have asked myself so many times. Even more often ever since my dad got sick, during his illness and after his death. Suffering during our life time is unavoidable. Whether is a physical pain, or mental, or emotional; we will suffer at some point in our lives. Yet always in my mind I thought: “But if the person is good, why do they have to suffer so much?” Even if we are good people and try to do the right thing, it still happens. Suffering doesn’t discriminate, doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, tall of short, no matter the color of your skin, your gender, or what religion, what nationality… it doesn’t matter. It happens to everyone at some point…But why? why to good people? What can we do about it?
I have tried to find an answer, I wanted to rationalize the pain that my dad went through and the pain that his suffering caused the people surrounding him and the helplessness of the whole situation. So maybe then it would be easier to digest.
In almost all theological and philosophical views suffering is mentioned. I am definitely not the first or the last to look into this but I will mention a few here…
The endowment effect
The Endowment Effect in psychology is a term used to explain how we have the tendency to overvalue something just because we own it. This attachment is simply the connection between our sense of self and what we consider ours. By nature we are prone to attachment, but why?… D. Kahneman and A. Tversky (both psychologist) said: “humans are inherently loss-averse”. We do not like loss because losing something or someone we hold dear equals: Pain!
Buddhism is one of the five major religions in the world. It’s a way of living that is practiced by 9-10% of the population in the world… they believe that there are Four Noble Truths, and it explains all about suffering:
- Suffering exists – The truth of suffering. A fact, it just is.
- Suffering arises from attachment to desires– This is the cause of suffering.
- Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases. – The end of suffering.
- Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path – The path to end suffering (Note: This eight fold path is not the same as in yoga, although it has similarities).
Here is a link to a video that explains the eightfold path of buddhism if you’d like to know more in detail – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLS81XFzaWw
There are many interpretations of each of these four truths, everyone can adapt it to themselves as they think best fits but one thing that it provides is a contingency plan to deal with suffering. It is hope that there is a way to end suffering! The Buddha said: “He who walks the eightfold noble path with unswerving determination is sure to reach Nirvana” (Nirvana = Transcendence). This is an approach by self improvement, the suffering will stop when you follow the eightfold path and you will find bliss.
In Judaism suffering is mentioned everywhere in the torah and there is a lot of arguments in the reason why good people can suffer. In Judaism the focus is mainly on your relationship with God. Some rabbis stick to the eschatology concept of “punishment and reward” where the person will be judged after death, or even in another life since we believe in reincarnation. Some explain that in Mount Sinai, God gives the torah to the jews and as they receive it they agreed to abide by those commandments. The interesting thing here is that with it, an important question arises, “Why do good people that follow the commandments can still suffer?”
In the book of Job, there is an explanation to this. The story of Job suggests that it is to no avail for anyone to try and figure out why God causes suffering, even to good people, we must still have faith. We must have faith and understand that we do not know what the big picture looks like but God does.
Another completely different philosophical view is from Nietzsche! This is one quote that really made me react as I was reading it the first time…
“To those human being who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not- that one endures”
The acceptance of suffering, to embrace suffering is Nietzsche’s view, not because someone or something will redeem you but because it makes you stronger and you can prevail.
In yoga philosophy one of the most important books, is the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. In it, Dhukham (Suffering in sanskrit) is also mentioned. To understand how to end suffering according to yoga philosophy, we must understand what Samsara is.
Samsara is the cycle of rebirth (or cycle of suffering, or aimlessly wandering) which is tied to karma theory (Karma is the principal of “cause and effect” of our actions in the world, basically all you do, ripples). The idea behind yoga is to liberate yourself from Samsara, end the suffering cycles and transcend. One must use each reincarnation for introspection and understand the purpose of their lives, and we do so while we cultivate non-attachment. This is the way out of Samsara. Quite the challenge if you ask me! Maybe the attachment to one’s possessions is more achievable but what about our families and loved ones? That’s a bigger challenge… but maybe each reincarnation you can get closer and closer to complete non-attachment (Aparigraha in sanskrit).
To me… as of right now… It all comes down to Impermanence and Faith. We are surrounded by impermanence yet we struggle so much to understand it and accept it. Everything, absolutely everything is bound to change, transform, mutate, evolve… But we suffer when this happens, we cry when someone dies or a relationship ends; we get angry when we are no longer needed and we are forced to move on. We suffer because we are attached to everything, when in reality; harmony and balance is achieved when we learn to accept the impermanence of everything. When we enjoy everything while we have it and learn to let go when it transforms into something else. It’s the hardest job we’ll ever have but we must have faith that at the end… we’ll be ok.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” –Viktor Frankl-